10 Things I Learned in Sri Lanka

M and I just returned from an amazing honeymoon in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. All aspects of the trip went very well, and considering how varied the places we visited were, I consider it to be very successful! I plan to post another time about the specifics of planning a holiday in Sri Lanka but for now, I want to share 10 things I learned in Sri Lanka. It is a relatively small country with so many different types of eco-systems, as is common on islands. Six nights and seven days meant a whirlwind trip, but we still managed to see a lot in the tiny country of Sri Lanka!

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The start of our honeymoon
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Galle Face, Colombo

Without further adieu, my top ten list:

10. All students in Sri Lanka wear uniforms and all children are required to attend school.

Furthermore, we found it a bit backward that girls in Sri Lanka wear long neck ties and the boys do not. Public school children all wear white and private schools are allowed to choose other various colors for their pupils’ uniforms.

9. The adult buffalo dominates the leopard.

During our two safaris in Yala National Park, we were fortunate to see several leopards. On the afternoon safari, one male was lazily napping on what appeared to be a favorite tree limb. While scanning the scene with our binoculars, 100 meters away were several of the abundant water buffalo spotted. They happily grazed until the awakening leopard began to sleepily glance around, yawning a bit and switching his tail. Perhaps he was ready to get up or perhaps he was planning to park it on this tree limb for awhile longer, but soon came the irritated groans from the water buffalo sending a warning that he had been detected. As we watched some more, the leopard’s ear perked and his tail ceased moving. The groaning continued and in an instant the leopard had jumped down hightailing it to the woods just behind him. The groans grew angry while the buffalos chased him. Finally, they inspected his sleeping place carefully so as to gain any clues that would help them get rid of their enemy. Wow! We thought the leopard was the top of the chain!

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Lazy leopard on a tree limb
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Buffalos checking out the leopard’s spot after intimidation

8. Elephant poo makes great paper.

On our second to last day, we visited Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage toward the middle of Sri Lanka, which was a truly amazing experience. Here, they take in abandoned or hurt elephants from the wild and care for them giving them quite a luxury elephant lifestyle spoiling them with tons of fruit and woods. And due to their completely vegetarian lifestyle, elephant poo can be turned into paper! Furthermore, elephants eat A LOT. Which makes a lot of poo, in turn providing the opportunity to make a lot of paper, thereby saving the trees! The process goes from cleaning to cooking to drying to sorting to pulping and from there is the same process as regular paper making. We couldn’t walk away from the poo paper shop without buying a souvenir.

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7. The elephant has an enormous growl.

During our few hours at Pinnawala, we were lucky to be there during the elephant bathing time. What does this mean? All the elephants are herded down to the river and for some, it means 2 hours of freedom! Elephants love to climb up the banks and spread mud all over their bodies, and during this time it was pouring rain, a perfect situation for the elephants. For those not allowed to run free, they were chained up and trained meanwhile. The elephant whisperers managed to get babies and older guys alike to lie down in the water and enjoy their bathing time! They had particular techniques and sounds which the elephants ultimately paid attention to. Meanwhile, one guy either was looking for attention or acting a bit frisky, but whatever the reason, he was growling and howling like nothing else. Not only did he produce a classic elephant trumpeting, but the growls were certainly something new to us! But the best part was this guy didn’t seem unhappy, he just seemed to be communicating.

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6. Nuwara Eliya is called Little England for its perpetually cool temperatures and rainy climate.

I planned our route to go from the Southeast where Yala National Park is to approximately the center of the country, Dambulla. I figured it couldn’t be that long given it’s a pretty small country and it’s an island! Definitely doable in a day… well it turns out, yes, it’s doable in a day but what a day that was! Google Maps predicts around 7 hours, but about 5 of those are winding in and out of the hills and eventually brought us to a peak in Sri Lanka around the town of Nuwara Eliya. The difference from starting by the ocean to getting to this place was literally night and day. The clouds hung near the horizon and the local people wore parkas! We just came from the sweltering heat of the seaside jungle and ended up in what our driver told us is nicknamed Little England. All over we saw golf courses and Europeans practicing a swing in shorts, while the architecture of the buildings was more like mountaintop chalet. It was quite a contrast.

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5. Driving in Sri Lanka means learning a language of honking.

We were in the car often, and plenty of times we tried to nod off, but the constant honking made it difficult. Sri Lanka has adapted the British style of driving and they drive on the left. Ok fine, but throw into the mix a tendency for drivers to spend more time on the right than on the left in order to pass and only a last minute decision to move back to the left to swerve away from an oncoming truck, killer bus (more on this later), moped or regular car meant lots and lots of honking. But usually it was initiated from the passing car as some sort of acknowledgement? Or perhaps it was an irritation for being too slow. Either way, no matter the situation while driving, some combination of honk was included.

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4. An average Sri Lankan has excellent English skills.

Though I realize I can’t compare it to Germany, I couldn’t help but consider how even outside of a tiny village in Sri Lanka where we stopped at the roadside for a coffee, the lady running the tiny coffee stand business in her home had exceptional English skills, whereas in Germany outside of the major cities, you can’t easily survive without a basic understanding of German. M and I discussed this, and certainly we realized that when a country values tourism so highly, English generally follows. But we were amazed at the exceptional skills of most people we met. Even this lady’s 17 year old son who came home from school while we were still finishing the coffee was incredibly polite with his proper English.

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3. Once an elephant is in the orphanage, he can never return to the wild.

Unfortunately elephants are not accepting of humans, and after spending time in the orphanage being handled by humans, he can never be accepted again in the wild. It’s a shame but fortunately the orphanage seems to be doing an amazing job.

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Elephant in the orphanage. I was surprised to see how much they loved to eat wood.
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Elephant orphans bathing time
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Orphan bathing time
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Wild elephants spotted on the side of the road
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Wild elephants at Minneriya National Park

2. The public buses are nicknamed “killer buses”.

As mentioned previously, the driving in Sri Lanka is treacherous. Cars, mopeds and even the public buses are constantly passing. It was wild, and it ultimately required a sense of just sitting back and hoping for the best! Thanks for getting us around safely, Shan!

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1. That famous tea we know – Ceylon tea – is Sri Lankan tea!

Sri Lanka obtained independence from the British in 1948 and prior to this, they were named Ceylon. So that famous tea we all know is from Sri Lanka and still grown abundantly!

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